Thursday, January 06, 2022



Possible upside to climate change. Two days after Thanksgiving we put up our metal Victorian Christmas tree in the morning, then hit golf balls in our shirt sleeves after lunch with snow capped mountains in the background. (A few inches on top of a manmade base allowed Santa Fe Ski Basin to open for the season.) Other decorations, including our electric farolitos (aka “luminarias” in CT and southern NM) went up over the next few days.
Actual downside to climate change. Unusually dry conditions and warm days are causing us to water the perennial planters, in-ground flowers and trees that would normally rely on Mother Nature for off-season maintenance moisture. This may go on throughout the winter. Fortunately the small amount of rain that accompanied the higher elevation snow temporarily replenished our barrels – the ski area is at 12,000 feet, we are 7,200 feet. Now the trick is to purposefully empty them out before the inevitable Dec-Feb freeze hits, and the hoped-for snow starts falling.

We don’t know about you, but in our family sweets in the form of cookies, cakes, candy and the occasional pie are a big part of the winter holidays. And especially anything chocolate. Which also, it turns out, was the confection of choice for earlier New Mexican residents and incomers such as the first Indian settlers, the Spanish Conquistadors and Re-Conquistadors, Converso Jews, Native mercenaries in the Apache Wars, Anglo travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and early passengers of the Santa Fe Railroad.

And even before them, for the ancient residents of southern Ecuador where 5,500-year-old ceramic pots and a piece of a mortar were found containing traces of cacao (from which chocolate is made.) Shamans among the Shuar Indians are believed to have used a heavy cylindrical stone called a “mano” to crush the beans on a grinding stone known as a “metate.” (The same device used in New Mexico into the 1900s to grind corn and wheat.) A fire softened the cacao into a paste that, after being left to dry, was grated and/or diluted in water to make hot chocolate.

The beans also grew in the equatorial part of Mexico – and served as currency there until around 1740. “A turkey was 100 cacao beans,” according to archaeologist Cameron L. McNeil. But not just for Thanksgiving dinner. “Turkeys were probably used in...the creation of blankets, paints, tools, musical instruments, food, and art,” according to UNM anthropologist Patricia Crown.

(bowl fragment with two opposing turkeys & excavated turkey pens)

Guatemala and Venezuela ultimately became the primary growers of cocoa beans, which the natives ground, roasted and fermented into a drink. And chocolate became an important part of royal and religious events in both Mayan and Aztec cultures. But not for the common people. “It was used to commune with the gods,” something only a select few were entitled to do, according to Nicolasa Chávez, of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. In the 1500s, only merchants, warriors, nobles, and the royals could obtain cocoa drinks, which they imbibed from golden cups and engraved or painted goblets.

The Spanish love affair with the caffeine confection began with Christopher Columbus – or Hernando Cortés – or the Franciscan missionary monks. Chocolate historians disagree.

Columbus was greeted by the indigenous Nicaraguans with a bitter, spicy chocolate drink on his Fourth Voyage in 1502. Gourmet chocolatier Jacques Torres however believes that Hernando Cortés, conquerer of the Aztec kingdom, first brought it back to the European continent. In a 1520 letter to Carlos V, Cortés mentioned that the natives imbibed hot chocolate as a stimulant.

“But cacao is not in the inventory of goods that he took to show [the king],” counters archaeologist Cameron L. McNeil. She attributes cacao’s introduction to the friars who escorted the Kekchi (Maya people of Guatemala and Beliz) to meet Prince Phillip in 1544. The friars had regular access to chocolate because many Meso-Americans continued their pre-conquest tradition of bringing it as a religious offering to places of worship. “The friars would turn around and sell the offerings and make a lot of money doing this. They could also consume a certain amount of the offerings themselves. Let’s be honest, the friars were often as greedy as the conquistadors.”

In any event, by the late 1500s chocolate was a much-loved indulgence in the Spanish court. Soon, other European nations such as Italy and France visited parts of Central America, learned about cacao and brought it back to their respective countries.

“Contrary to popular and scholarly opinion, the reason for chocolate’s success with Europeans was not that they could [disguise] indigenous flavors with sugar. [They] did not alter chocolate to fit the predilections of their palate. Instead, Europeans...developed a taste for Indian chocolate, and sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe,” according to Archaeological Scientist Heather Trigg.

But one place they did not need to introduce their sweet new discovery was New Mexico. Traces of it have been found on a 1,000-year-old pottery shard unearthed at Chaco Canyon  Discovered with the pots were scarlet macaw feathers – confirming trade with Central America, likely using the same commercial trail that was to become El Camino Real under the Spanish. Most Chacoans however did not get to enjoy the chocolate, which still was “an expensive delicacy enjoyed by few during elaborate rituals,” per Smithsonian Magazine.
The pre-contact Pueblo Indians (descendants of the ancient Anasazi) probably continued trading with the successors of those Meso-American Natives. But reconnaissance into New Mexico before the first colonization indicated that if the incoming Spanish felt that they really needed something, they ought to bring it themselves.

Although the inventory of goods taken on Juan de Oñate’s 1598 first settlement expedition contains only one reference to chocolate, the repeated mention of sugar, and the discovery of shards of small handle-less Chinese porcelain cups, suggest that the confection was consumed by at least some members of his party. Two years after his arrival Oñate reported having “eighty small boxes of chocolate” – so precious that he stored it in intricate spice jars with locking metal lids to protect it from thieves. The early settlers also brought their own cocoa beans, which would not grow in the New Mexico climate – leading to a need to import their beloved sweet, and 420 years later prompting this reaction from a young museum guest to Marsha’s story that the confection was only consumed on very special occasions. “No chocolate! That’s the worst thing ever!”

Meanwhile back in Mexico – NM’s faraway supplier – it was apparently more available to the masses. Just not during them. According to Englishman Thomas Gage, in 1637 the women of Chiapas, Mexico “made a habit of sipping chocolate during long church services [which] so inflamed the bishop that he forbade it as an interruption of Mass. When the parishioners retaliated by celebrating Mass in convents, he threatened both the congregants and the nuns with excommunication. Soon afterword, the bishop grew ill. He died from a poisoned cup of chocolate.” (Nicolasa Chávez.) Revenge is sweet.

In 1661, Nuevo México Territorial Governor, Lopez de Mendizabal, wrote of enjoying time spent sipping chocolate with his wife Dona Teresa. Next year they both were imprisoned and tried by the Spanish Inquisition for the crime of judaizante, the hidden practice of Jewish rituals. One of their offenses – an excessive consumption of chocolate. After being imprisoned in a cell for six months Teresa rebutted each of the 47 charges against her. Her case was suspended and she was ultimately released after 28 months in prison. But her life was essentially ruined. Her husband died while in jail, and she spent the rest of her days fighting to get all of her possessions back from the courts. (Hear Dona Teresa “in her own words” @)
The Spanish were chased from New Mexico by the Natives in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. And returned in the Reconquista of 1692. “When Diego DeVargas marched north for the reconquest... each of his soldiers carried a wedge of chocolate all the way up the Camino Real. And as he negotiated with the people who had toppled Spanish rule...he enticed them with a bit of chocolate diplomacy.” National Geographic reports that subsequent Spanish “settlers traveling to Santa Fe [in 1695] record having chocolate among their food supplies.”
But confections alone did not lead to cordial coexistence. The year 1787 saw “extraordinary expenditures of the Peace and War of this Province of New Mexico...3 arrobas [75 pounds] of ordinary chocolate.” Next year Governor Juan Bautista de Anza, authorized payment of chocolate to the Comanche Indians for their assistance in the Spanish-Apache wars “Merchandise that has been delivered to the Lieutenant Jose Maldonado, Pay Master of the Presidio of Santa Fe, New Mexico for the reward of the Comanches: un cajon de buen chocolate [a large box of good chocolate.]” (Wiley Online Library, Chocolate Timeline)

In the first half of the 1800s chocolate was a special treat for those who successfully completed the trek along the Santa Fe Trail. “There’s accounts of people coming up the Santa Fe Trail being greeted with a steaming, frothy cup of chocolate,” according to Nicolasa Chávez.

And from 1880 to 1889 The Santa Fe Railroad offered an entrée of “sweetbreads, sautéed with mushrooms Spanish puffs and chocolate glaze to tempt reluctant travelers aboard. (Wiley Online Library)

But what about today’s travelers to the Land of Enchantment? Should we, like Juan de Oñate, BYOC? Not to worry. For us there is the Santa Fe Chocolate Trail – “a cocoa-dusted route that connects...esteemed purveyors of this fine food of the gods...using an array of sweet treats and organic ingredients native to New Mexico, including chile, pinon nuts and lavender.” Among the stops is Kakawa Chocolate House whose hot chocolate “elixirs” regularly relax, refresh and revive us on our runs into town.
For us, chocolate will continue to appear on the scene throughout the holidays in such treats as croissants, as well as chocolate-chili and black-and-white cookies. More will be gifted to us. And from us. Some of it will come from stops on “the trail.” In fact, as this was being written, the scent of Pumpkin Chocolate Chip cookies from Wethersfield Historical Society’s Heritage Family Cookbook filled the air – and the caffeine jolt from the excess Trader Joe’s semi-sweet pieces fueled Jim’s fingers.

But we know that not everyone is a chocaholic. Or even a chocolate liker. So we hope that all of you enjoy the aromas and tastes – whether sweet or savory – as well as the sights, sounds and other sensations that make YOUR winter festivities special to YOU.

Oh, if you happen to end up with some extra chocolate that can’t really find a use for...remember it is always welcome to stay, however briefly, at our house.

BTW – at least part of the “old normal” may be back. During the final editing of this piece Santa Fe’s temps dropped into the 40s (mid 20s overnight) – and TV meteorologists were excietedly predicting the “first official winter storm of the season” featuring “west winds 35 to 45 mph with gusts up to 65 mph” plus snow in the heights, rain at our elevation and something in between, in between.

They were spot-on with the wind speed and temperatures – not so much with the precipitation. From our neighborhood view there looked to be barely a dusting in the mountains. While the water level hardly moved in our rain barrels. (Even though we likely could use them this winter, we will drain and store them in the garage to prevent cracking during the freezin’ season.  And hope that it won’t be a dry cold.)  Two days later we walked in sunny downtown Santa Fe and revived ourselves with chocolate elixirs at Kakawa while sitting outside in borderline 60 degree weather.  More of the same is expected – at least for the short term.

Felices Vacaciones (Happy Holidays) 
(A portion of Christmas brunch)

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